Exercise: Exposing reactions to change

March 30, 2016 3coze

Pick up your pen and write your name. Easy-peasy, right? Now, put your pen in your other hand and write your name again. What was your reaction to my instructions? How did it feel as you tried to scratch out something legible? I did this exercise yesterday with a group who are leading a major change in their organization. The results were quite telling.

People’s reactions to change were exposed right from the moment I asked them to put their pens in their non-dominant hands. One participant reflexively blurted out “no!” and put her pen down. Another participant giggled and dove right in, laughing light-heartedly as she struggled to scratch out an illegible version of her name.

Of all the silly exercises I do with teams, this is one of my favorites. It takes only 10 seconds and provides compelling evidence of people’s diverse reactions to change. It provides golden opportunities to increase insight and improve empathy—especially when it’s the person who’s been complaining about staff member resistance who is the one who grumbles and complains about having to write with his or her left hand!

Discussion Questions

I really encourage you to try this fun exercise with your team. Here are some questions you can use to stimulate a good discussion.

  • How did you feel when you wrote your name with your dominant hand?
  • What was your first reaction when I asked you to change hands?
  • How did it feel as you attempted to write your name with your opposite hand?
  • What did you learn about your default reaction to change? To what extent did your first reaction shift?
  • What other reactions did you see or hear around the room? How were other people’s reactions different than yours?
  • Who had a change of heart as they were doing it? What was behind that?
  • How is this similar to reactions we’ve seen as we implement change in the organization?
  • What do we need to remember as we’re managing change?

Fruitful Topics of Discussion

There are so many story lines you can weave into the discussion. Here are a few of the ones I use. I’d love to hear any others that come up as you try this with your team.

  1. The size of the change doesn’t matter. People can have very strong reactions to the most insignificant changes. No one was evaluating the quality of handwriting. No performance reviews or bonuses were tied to left-handed (or right-handed) penmanship. I didn’t even ask people to show each other their attempts. Regardless, people react, sometimes strongly, to having to do something new. My favourite mountain-out-of-a-molehill change story is the team that revolted (full-on lying down in front of the steamroller revolt) when their new leader changed their report formats from landscape-oriented legal size paper to portrait-oriented letter size—the HORROR!
  2. Change equals more effort. Even silly, simple, seemingly inconsequential changes interrupt your established way of doing things, which means more energy needs to be invested to get through the task. Once a task has become habit, it doesn’t require nearly as much energy, so asking someone to do something a new way is asking her to expend more energy, at least in the short term. If you’re thinking about a change as an improvement in efficiency, be aware that the benefits will only accrue once the new approach becomes habit.
  3. Change exposes confidence (or a lack thereof). Doing something new (or doing something old in a new way) means interrupting comfort, control, and competence. You’ll find that some people are willing to feel uncomfortable, incompetent, and not in control—it’s the people with confidence. Be empathetic about the experiences people have had that have left them with shaky confidence and be ready to bolster it where required.
  4. First reactions aren’t fatal. As is common, our participant who initially balked at the idea of writing with her left hand didn’t resist for long. As she saw her teammates having a go, she too made an honest attempt at a legible signature. Be prepared for people who will be temporarily immobilized by change and invest the time in hearing their concerns, helping them to reframe their thoughts, and encouraging them to give it a try.
  5. People judge. It would be one thing if change was implemented for each person in isolation, but that’s not how it works. Change comes as a big, messy mash-up where one person’s initial reaction affects how they view others, which in turn affects how individuals feel about themselves. Commonly, those who relish change alienate those who struggle with it. That triggers defensiveness and causes the resistors to retrench widening the gulf between change advocates and detractors. Help people deal with their own issues individually and encourage people not to judge those who approach change differently.

Change is so common in organizations today and given that something as minor as changing the paper for a report can trigger a change response, you have to be prepared for it. The “Write your name” exercise is a quick and fun way to expose some valuable truths about change and to get your team thinking about what to expect. I’d love to hear how this discussion goes with your team.

Further Reading

Culture is the cheapest thing to change

What to say to someone resisting change

Dealing with a change that’s hard to swallow

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